Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gender Protocol in Thailand

When Kat and I are involved in a conversation with Thais, there is an obvious difference in protocol depending on the general age of the person to whom we are speaking. If the person is middle aged or older, we settle into a predictable methodology. Despite Kat's very obvious superiority in use of the Thai language, and despite my very obvious attempts to deflect or steer the rapid fire questions in Thai to her, older folks nevertheless face me and address their inquiries my way. My strategy to lean or move toward her so that we are at least both in the line of vision does not seem to make a difference, nor my quizzical looks to her when I have absolutely no idea what has just been said. I am still the person to whom the conversation is directed. This is just the way things are in Thailand: It is traditionally a male-oriented society, and even though one from the west may feel a bit awkward in such a situation, it is something that one must learn to take in stride. Younger people are beginning to show less deference to males when in such a situation, but the tradition remains strong.

This situation is not all that different among more conservative westerners, certainly in the United States, and was the norm just half a century ago. With the global connection through computers and movies
well underway, as well as more frequent travel, I am sure that this trend will continue.

A Thai student of mine suggested that the Thai may make an assumption about the educational status of the people he is speaking with, based on his own situation, and apply it subconsciously to the conversation protocol. She went on to say that Thais still create in their minds a hierarchy based on social or educational status, but that it is definitely changing among the younger generation.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Songkran: Thai New Year

April 13 is "Songkran;" New Year's Day in Thailand. Songkran is a time for Thais to mark the occasion through actions involving the pouring of scented water: Cleaning Buddha statues, rinsing the hands of elders, and the gentle pouring of water on heads and shoulders, all acts of respect and renewal. Another Songkran ritual is the dabbing of white powdery paste on cheeks to ward off evil. This tradition is still carried out over many days, but added to the gentler nature of Songkran is a revelry in which people carry the tradition to an extreme in a party atmosphere. It involves a LOT of water, the vessels of which range from bowls to garden hoses to super soakers to large ceramic jars carried in the beds of pickup trucks. To increase the merriment of the festival, large quantities of beer and loud music are added. All of this generally occurs in the streets and at all hours for several days, a happy way to cool off during Thailand's hottest month. Below are photos and a video from the Songkran party in Hua Hin.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bangkok Unrest: Songkran Update

Yahoo news reports "Bloody Protests Spread Throughout Thailand." Not true! From watching Thai news coverage and talking to Thais, this is simply false. In fact, the scene has quieted, as many of the protesters have left the area, or returned home. The conflict has been confined to a few scattered spots in Bangkok. Two persons are reported dead, but reports are that it was not from army actions against the protesters; it occurred in confrontations by other citizens not associated with the protests. Apparently, both tried to intervene to stop the protests and in the ensuing scuffle, were killed. The exiled ex-prime minister has accused the army of killing red-shirted protesters, but that has not been verified by independent sources.

Yesterday I took a taxi--or tried to--to the southern bus station to head down the coast for a beach holiday. Kat had gone with a friend two days before. What should have been a relatively uneventful trip turned into something else. The first indication that it wouldn't be so simple was when the taxi was turned back by red-shirted protesters as we approached one of the bridges that went over the river and out of town. As the taxi made its way toward another bridge, we found ourselves blocked yet again in the middle of the city and right in the center of the protests. Exiting the taxi, I decided to catch a minivan, but as I walked toward the van stands, I noticed crowds of people above me at the skytrain walkway looking down the street in the direction of my destination. A few blocks away, I saw a thick plume of smoke rising from a pile of debris near a blocked intersection and several abandoned city buses. When I asked a bystander what was going on, he indicated that there were skirmishes and I shouldn't go there. He also chuckled when I inquired about the minivans, and he shook his head. "Not running today!" Naturally, I took the cue and reversed my path. At that time, I saw no evidence of any demonstrations or police presence, but was to find out later that it was actually one of the isolated areas where clashes with the army had taken place.

Catching another taxi at Victory Monument, which was all but abandoned since being taken over by the "red shirts" a few days earlier, we successfully made our way onto the expressway, assisted by a helpful red shirt who removed a barricade at the expressway entrance. We sped over the bridge, and twenty minutes later I was dropped off at the bus station, which strangely, is inside a bustling department store. When I eventually found the ticket window, I was told that my bus was departing immedately. I rushed to the dock where the driver was busy splashing buckets of water on the overheated radiator. Not a good sign. But, we left on time anyway and I resigned myself to the possibility of not reaching the destination on time. At least the air con was working on what I later named the "Kidney Jam Express."

During the three hour drive, I watched the festive scene of the Thai New Year, or "Songkran" unfold (Thailand celebrates three new year's dates--Roman calendar, Chinese, and Thai). This day of celebration involves a carnival-like atmosphere during the hottest month where immense amounts of water are splashed, squirted, or dumped on passersby, many of whom drive around in pickup trucks with huge barrels of water, merrily dousing each other. The further south I went, the more festivals I saw. It was a very strange feeling to see people completely unaffected by the events in Bangkok. This important holiday went on as if nothing unusual was happening in the capital city. Perhaps they are used to periodic political unrest, or maybe it's simply that nothing was going to prevent them from having "sanuk" (fun) on New Year's Day.

When I was dropped off in the seaside resort city of Hua Hin, the energy level was high. Thais and foreigners alike walked or drove through the city, most completely soaked, enveloped by the festive atmosphere. A motorcycle taxi took me to the hotel, weaving in and out of the nearly stalled traffic, avoiding curbside water tossing as best he could. "Don't worry," I told him. "I expect to get wet today." Me and my big mouth. Upon arriving at the hotel, we were definbitely not dry.

I switched on the TV to watch the updates, and was amazed at how the situation had deteriorated. The red shirt (anti-government) demonstrators showed a great lack of control, quite in contrast to their political counterparts (Yellow shirt opposition to the ex-prime minister ousted two years ago) during their demonstrations in November when they took over the airport. Then, they left the airport virtually undamaged, and it was able to open soon after. This has been much different, as the international and Thai news agencies have reported. It is a great disappointment to see this unfold. One side note: I discovered that the most complete and balanced news agency to report the clashes was--not BBC or CNN, and Fox? Don't make me laugh)--Al Jazeera. If you want to see unbiased reporting and interviewing at its best, go to their channel or site.

We participated in the lively Songkran street festival last night, and returned to the hotel wet and caked in pasty powder. The revelry lasted well into the night, long after we had fallen asleep. Today, the Thai stations are showing contnuous coverage of what seems to be relative calm in the city. I hope it's the end of the storm. What lies in wait for Thailand's political future is anyone's guess. But for now, the Songkran holiday continues unabated. I will post some photos and videos of the celebration once we get back to Bangkok later in the week.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Anti-Government Protests Scene 2

Anti-Government protesters have taken to the streets of Bangkok once again. While in November the protesters were yellow-shirted royalists representing the country's elite--professionals, military, middle class--this time it is the red-shirted supporters of Thailand's ousted prime minister, who in exile commands a great following. Both groups claim to be pro-democracy, but the definition is muddled. Ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was certainly corrupt (Yellow shirt argument), but instituted many popular programs for the rural and urban working class (Red shirt argument). After the votes were counted last year, Thaksin's party won, but the party was then declared illegal by the courts. The current prime minister (Supported by the yellow shirts) was appointed by parliament. This is the conundrum.

A similar scene as the yellow shirt protests in November is today's action by the red shirts. A friend witnessed yesterday the incapacitating of an army armored vehicle by the red shirts who, he said, "swarmed all over the vehicles like ants." The riot closed a major street while the police stood by. The police are simply outnumbered, and generally do not carry weapons. Likewise, the protesters do not carry guns. By and large, such protests are non-violent, as Thai law enforcement personnel are reluctant to harm fellow citizens who are not endangering lives. There have been exceptions, of course, but few, and no deaths. The army has been called out to contain important areas of the city, but can they? Certainly the police and army have splits in their ranks concerning loyalties. 

Causing further confusion is the fact that the king is the head of the military. As Thailand struggles toward a vision of true democracy, the roles of the monarchy, military, and elected ministry are blurred. This is truly an important transition period in Thai politics. A colleague who has lived in Thailand for many years notes that each time the country hits a rough spot like this, it comes through shaken, but with tangible change toward greater stability.

While Thailand goes through yet another difficult time, the effects on us personally have been minor, as they were in November. Life goes on in most of Thailand as if nothing were happening. Maybe it is because this happens so frequently in Thailand, and eventually it will be sorted out, possibly by the military. But is seems more difficult now as people have become more openly polarized. It may not be so simple this time around. We remain vigilant, and monitor the news reports, as well as avoiding areas where there may be trouble. The news reports may make it seem as though the streets of Bangkok are awash in anarchy, but that is not the case. We are safe, and life goes on. Meanwhile, the tourist beaches are virtually empty, so that is where we are headed today, leaving this troubled city behind for a few days, as the country celebrates the Thai new year.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Thai-Chinese Cuisine

The very large proportion of Chinese Thais here influences many aspects of Thai culture: Medicine, finance, festivals, and, of course, food. While traditional Chinese food is quite different than Thai food, there is some overlap, but for the most part, it is easy to distinguish the two. Yesterday, as I walked through a part of the city where I lived twenty years ago, I came across a tiny corner open-air restaurant that I used to pass each day on my way to and from work. Unobtrusive, yet located in one of the most upscale tourist areas in Bangkok, in the shadow of gleaming five star hotels and beneath the sleek elevated skyway, it seemed to be unchanged by time. Rickety chairs nestled under plain wooden tables, handmade shelves piled with various utensils and food tins, lighting provided mainly by the daylight, and an ancient, shuffling owner, scowling and mumbling as we ordered from the menu that I know had been unchanged through the intervening decades (On its frayed and faded pages it still lists a beer that no longer exists in Thailand).

While the ambience may give a certain rustic charm to the dining experience, it is the menu itself that is the draw for me (Proclaiming Chinese, Thai, and European food). If one claims to be adventurous, and will "try anything" (You know the type), sit them down at this humble establishment and watch as they read through the "specials." For your gourmet enjoyment, have them try the "cow's stomach soup" or perhaps the "fried deer gut with red sauce." For those who prefer pork, there is the "fried pig bowel," or the "pig's ear salad." I am not making this up (And you thought it was only on "The Addams Family!"). If one is still undecided, I suggest trying the "Fried Eight Things."

So, the next time you are in Bangkok, drop in to the Yonglee Restaurant at the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Soi 15. And if you happen to give it a try, please let me know the identity of the "Eight Things." (I was tempted, but, no, I didn't.)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Spirit Worship

One is frequently reminded that although officially a Buddhist country, Thailand nevertheless has a variety of belief systems woven into its culture. While Buddhist temples dominate the landscape, there are thousands of altars virtually everywhere in the country that have nothing to do with Buddhism. Prior to embracing Buddhism, the Thais were--and still are--animists, believing in the ability of spirits to inhabit just about everything. This is shown in the many spirit houses in yards, in front of hotels, outside of every business, on street corners, and in some cases, at the sites of fatal accidents where offerings are made to the ghosts of departed loved ones. 

Accident site

If one looks closely at these altars, it is generally not the image of a Buddha that receives the prayers. Usually they are mythological creatures, photos of ancestors, or Hindu images, particularly Brahma, the four faced Hindu god of creation or Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of success, as Hinduism continues to exert a strong influence. Even Vishnu, the supreme Hindu deity, is embedded in the official Thai government seal. These are the most popular altars outside of Buddhist temples. Interestingly, they are often seen at street intersections, so that--according to a Thai friend--they act as a type of traffic control: Drivers slow to pay their respects.

Brahma worship

It is indoors, or if outdoors, on the grounds of temples, where images of the Buddha are worshipped. Well, there and on the dashboards of taxis. The religious practice of Thai Buddhists is complex, and offers a fascinating look into the culture of this calm and accepting people. Don't try to figure it out: The Thais will laugh and tell you that they themselves cannot explain it. (To read more about Thai spirit houses, go to